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Tuesday, 5 September, 2000, 07:25 GMT 08:25 UK
Warm welcome for 'Sharia swimsuit'
A customer examines a selection of
A customer examines a selection of "Sharia swimsuits" in a Cairo boutique
By Caroline Hawley in Cairo

What do you do if you are an observant Muslim woman but you also like swimming?

This year, shops in Egypt have the answer: You buy what has become known as the "Sharia swimsuit".

It is part of a growing industry catering for religiously-observant women.

It mustn't be attractive for strange men to look at a lady, how she is dressed. No

Sheikh Mahmoud Al-Hanafi, Sunni Muslim leader
It is no longer mainly the westernised elite that can afford such leisure activities as swimming.

More and more Egyptians, including the more religious, can now do so as well.

In such a conservative society, many women have until now either had to sit on one side or go into the water in their clothes.

All covering

The "Sharia swimsuit" offers one solution. It is a high-necked, swimming costume with sleeves and a small skirt, to be worn over long trousers.

It first appeared a few years ago, but was expensive and hard to find.

This year, it is widely available - and comes in new cuts and colours.

Woman bathing
In the past, conservative Muslim women have bathed fully clothed
A salesman at the Sports Mall in Nasr City shows me rails of the new Egyptian-produced swimsuits.

10 models are available but are they selling well?

"Of course they're selling well, very well," says the salesman.

"You know we're living here in an Islamic country, it must be popular."

However, the highest religious authority for Sunni Muslims, Al-Azhar, does not recognise the new swimming costume.

One of its clerics, Sheikh Mahmoud al-Hanafi, says there is no such thing as an Islamically-acceptable swimsuit - the only thing Sharia law recognises is Islamic dress that is meant to protect women from what he calls "gossiping eyes."


"Islamic dress must have conditions," he says.

"It mustn't be (so) tight that exposes part of the body, mustn't be translucent that the person can see through,"

Size and colour, please?
Size and colour, please?
"Also it mustn't be attractive for strange men to look at a lady, how she is dressed. No."

The sheikh, though, had not seen one of the costumes.

But 15-year Nasr has - and she's a convert.

"The Islamic swimming suits they are better for us because of our religion and everything which says that we must be properly covered," she says.

"It is easier for us than to wear normal swimming suits because some of the parents do not like their girls going around in the normal cuts of swimming suits.

"It allows women or girls to do what they were not able to do before in an Islamic way."

The new swimsuit is, by shopkeepers' accounts, a big hit this summer among women who wear the veil.

Important market

As Egypt becomes more of a consumer society, they are an increasingly important market.

The Geneina shopping mall in the adjacent neighbourhood of Nasr City, boasts a smart fashion boutique for veiled women alongside shops selling skimpy t-shirts.

It is not that more women are now covering their heads.

That happened in the late 1970s and 1980s as a religious revival swept the region.

What is new is that more and more products are now being targeted specifically at religiously-observant women.

The new swimsuit is just the latest splash.

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